Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess may just be the weirdest film ever. Twenty-plus scientists gather in the mid-eighties in some suburban hotel for an epic battle of chess played on programs they have designed. The scenery includes plenty of mysterious technical equipment, as well as a rapidly growing number of cats who are elevator-friendly and appear out of he blue. When night falls, it’s full of drugs, alcohol, endless talks in computer jargon and a mysterious algorithm that can determine who ends up in whose room. Oh, and there is some unconventional couples therapy going on in the very same hotel. Yes, the two groups do meet. And mingle.
The latest from the director of Funny Ha Ha met with great audience response, both at Sundance, where it premiered, and in Berlin, where we sat down to talk about it. Rooted in the mockumentary tradition, Computer Chess is an ironic, psychedelic and very entertaining take on a seemingly hermetic subject. The film screens at SXSW.
Keyframe: During the Q&As, what is the question you get asked most often?
Andrew Bujalski: Well I don’t know, ’cause it’s still early in the process of this film. We only premiered in Sundance this January, had four screenings there, then a couple of them in Berlin. People mostly ask about the cameras we used, but I don’t know if this is the most common question yet. Nobody ever asked about the budget—maybe they never ask that in Europe? In America they always used to ask that, then it became known that it’s a faux-pas, so they stopped. I appreciate that.
Keyframe: It might be that the American indie philosophy of film budgeting is very different from the European one. For example: people like Kentucker Audley, who make tons of films completely outside of the system… I feel like we, the Europeans, are still attached to the idea of official subsidizing, self-financing still being a bit of an abstract concept.
Bujalski: It seems to be a uniquely American thing, which is fascinating. I don’t know any other film culture outside of the States where people just go out and make the movie without money. Partially it’s because obviously there is no government funding here so it’s not the same kind of system that you have. The government funding and the Hollywood system—they are different, but they’re not that much actually… they are both about waiting around for somebody else’s approval…For better and worse in States there is this tradition of not waiting for anybody’s approval.
Keyframe: Let’s make the faux-pas and talk budget. You’ve chosen a seemingly simple yet probably expensive way of shooting: film.
Bujalski: Well, it wasn’t that expensive. I’m used to shooting on film, which is obviously more expensive than digital. What we did was unwieldy and cumbersome and difficult… but not necessarily that pricey. We found these old video-cameras—we had three of them in total, because we never knew which one is gonna keep on working or not. Two of them we found on eBay, I don’t remember what we paid, but not much. The first one I bought myself just fantasizing about making this movie and I’m sure it was less than hundred dollars. Later, when we started seriously thinking about making this happen, we decided we should get more backup. But was not easy to find more, we had to scour ebay for months before we found what we needed. In 1969, when this camera was built, you’d run a line out to a three-fourths-inch tape deck, a very heavy tape deck you carry around with you… or not—I think they were mostly studio cameras, it wasn’t necessarily meant for hand-held use. Also: you can find a camera on eBay, and it might work. If you find a tape deck it’s very unlikely it will. The tape decks are all dead. And even if you can get one to be running again it won’t be reliable or a good idea. So we had to rig up this absurd series of digital conversions and we actually recorded straight to hard drive, very sort of twenty-first-century solution. We survived but it was a ridiculous way to work.
Keyframe: Funny enough, in a way it makes your challenging technical experience weirdly parallel to your characters’ journey in your film.
Bujalski: Absolutely. I was very lucky to have these actors, because most of the guys playing computer programmers in this movie are from that world, one way or another—either real-life computer programmers or computer scientists. It’s such a different spirit than the actor’s spirit… not to disparage actors, but I wouldn’t even know how to begin to work with a professional actor to mold them into that character, quite opposite to those people who come so naturally from this background. Of course not every computer programmer has a natural acting ability, but I was lucky to find the ones who do. And then, on the other side of the camera, I was lucky to have this amazing crew of people who were trying their hardest to figure out how to get our cameras to work. We also knew that the only way to pull this off would be to find somebody like a retired Sony engineer with time on his hands, and we happened to find one in the suburbs of Boston, who had a work bench in his garage and helped us out.
I was very lucky to have these actors, because most of the guys playing computer programmers in this movie are from that world, one way or another—either real-life computer programmers or computer scientists.
Keyframe: Computer Chess is a world inhabited by most unexpected characters. How did you come up with ideas for them? No way they are all based on your personal experience.
Bujalski: Unfortunately most of it happened unconsciously. For example most of Papageorge, as you see him on screen, and most of the characters, I had a conception of when writing, but then casting is everything and it’s always the actor that makes the idea come alive. It inevitably has to be more interesting than my sketch. With Papageorge I can talk about the concept, but really, the animating spirit behind it is Miles Page, who plays this role. He’s a very old friend of mine, whom I casted in my first film Funny Ha Ha and he hasn’t acted since. I thought it would be really fun to pull Miles into this project, because he is a very eccentric guy with an anarchic spirit. I didn’t know exactly what he’d do or feel, but I knew it’s not gonna be boring. He adds some off-culture feeling to this film that I felt good about and knew I could use. That character is the conduit for so much of the psychedelia that resonates in there.
Keyframe: But it’s only after some time that it gets weird. I have to admit I started watching this film without knowing anything about it…
Bujalski: Great. Perfect.
Keyframe: … and for the first fifteen minutes I was quite convinced it’s a documentary. Obviously it was before Papageorge’s character gets developed and the cats appear, of course….
Bujalski: I can’t speak for the whole world, but in the US, I’m pretty sure, you find more dog-lovers that cat-lovers in the general population, but among the filmmakers I’m sure that the vast proponent is of cat-lovers. I don’t know why that is, but I’d love to see a scientific study of that. The cat that gets off the elevator [in one of the scenes]—that was a magical performance! But yes, it’s when things get strange. [Laughs]. I think a lot of this [documentary feel] comes from the cameras we used, it’s such a specific kind of image. If you have encountered this type of images in your life at all, it’s not connected with anything from before last thirty years and it usually is documentary footage. It’s funny how times have changed, because in 1980s or so it would never occur to anyone to tell a narrative with this sort of cameras because the video was not good enough: and now, of course, everything is video. Obviously this film is not a mockumentary per se, there are elements of that… but it certainly begins somewhere in that vein and then drifts far away from it. We definitely wanted that energy of feeling like you were there, in that room.
Keyframe: And you made it happen. I think that this energy comes not only from the visual aspect, but also from the topic itself. This topic is very specific and precise, I don’t feel like anyone not somehow related to the subject could ever conceive of it. What is you story with chess?
Bujalski: I was thinking: what movie could you make on a camera like this? I’ve always had passive interest in chess, I was never any good in it, I never studied it, never had the discipline to really learn chess—but I always liked it. And I also liked to read about it and kind of wished I was good at it…
Keyframe: …like me and the piano…
Bujalski: Oh yes, for sure! I have a beautiful piano, it’s my grandmother’s which has been passed to me. My wife can play a bit. Thank God, at least somebody in the house puts it to use… I like to sit there and peek at it.
Keyframe: Back to chess?
Bujalski: So, my favorite bookstore in the world is called New England Mobile Book Fair, it’s in Boston, where I grew up. They have a section with books that have been sitting on those shelves for at least 30 years—I swear, I’ve been going there since I was a kid. And there was a book on chess trivia from the eighties, cost a dollar or two, and I thought: why not buy it? I won’t know the answers, but I can just flip through it, would be interesting. There was this little, two page long, section on computer chess, that was a burgeoning area back then. And for whatever reason I thought: ‘that would be a funny movie.’ That planted the idea for the film in my head. It stayed there for several years. People keep on asking me about particular ideas used in the film, and I honestly don’t remember. Like later with the characters, it also kinda happened subconsciously.
Keyframe: Apart from this particular inspiration, what else do you find intriguing about the period you focus on in this film?
Bujalski: I was certainly interested in that zone between seventies and eighties because I think that in the pop-culture telling of history, certainly in the States, there are very discreet images of each decade. You say that in the fifties everybody listened to Elvis and ate hamburgers in diners; in the sixties they turned into hippies, later they started disco-dancing, then playing Pac-Man… you don’t really get a sense of flow of history, there’s just one thing after the other. Having been a very young child at the time when this movie takes place, I just had those very vague memories or feelings about it and wanted to explore it more.
Keyframe: We live in times, when the presence of computer devices in our lives is so obvious that it goes mostly unnoticed. You go back to a time where there was a very noticeable distinction between humans and computers. It’s refreshing.
Bujalski: I think there were all these questions hanging in the air at that time. The general public understood that was the time when computers were coming into our lives, and they are [now] here to stay. They were wondering what that means for us, humans, how is it going to influence humankind, are computers going to become more human-like, or are we gonna start to resemble them? Nowadays we are used to our computers, they don’t seem that scary, they’ve become a part of our everyday lives. But in a way those questions stayed. They never got fully answered. They are still valid and interesting. We still grapple with them on some level.
Keyframe: What has been the reception of Computer Chess so far?
Bujalski: I’ve been very surprised by the reception, it got much better response than I expected—people actually like it, which is great.
Keyframe: It might be because of the hipster trend, which is ruling the world nowadays.
Bujalski: Well, I think I accidentally made something of the moment, the ‘zeitgeist,’ which I never did before and I don’t think I ever will again. It seems like people are into those old-school computers, you make a movie about them and they immediately like it. I didn’t know that.